One reason the Denver Broncos' defense has been so good as of late has been because of their safety group. It is led by longtime safety Justin Simmons who continues to be one of the best safeties in the NFL. He is a ball-hawking do it all safety who makes the Broncos secondary so dangerous. Now he is returning for his eighth year in the NFL and with the Broncos and looking to continue the dominance he has shown throughout his career.
Behind him, the Broncos have some solid depth at the safety position. Veteran Kareem Jackson was brought back once again, but his exact role on defense is to be determined. A big reason for that is because of promising-looking third-year safety Caden Sterns. He looked to be on the verge of a breakout season, but an injury ended his season after just a handful of games. After those three, you have special teams ace P.J. Locke, second-year safety Delarrin Turner-Yell, big rookie sixth-round pick JL Skinner and Devon Key rounding out the group.
This is a talented group and one of the deeper positions on the Broncos' roster. So, let us take an in-depth look at the safeties on the roster and what their role will be on this team moving forward.
Justin Simmons - Safety - 6-2, 202 pounds
Simmons is entering his 8th season in the NFL, all with the Broncos, and has become one of the best safeties in the NFL during that span. Now, he is looking to pair with Patrick Surtain II and give the Broncos one of the best secondaries in the NFL yet again this upcoming season.
He is a 3x second-team All-Pro, has one Pro Bowl appearance, and has 27 career interceptions during these past seven seasons. So, we should expect another stellar season from the Broncos All-Pro safety.
"Simmons was the seventh safety drafted in 2016 but has been a seven-year starter with three second-team All-Pro selections to his credit."@espn names @jsimms1119 among biggest draft steals of last decade » https://t.co/MVALJzCzQ9 pic.twitter.com/RtmkccZdxb— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) July 3, 2023
The Broncos will need him to be elite yet again this season if they want success. He has proven to be a ball-hawking safety and hopefully, we get more of that this season. I say this because the AFC and specifically the AFC West is stacked with elite quarterbacks. The Broncos will face Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert at least four times this season while also facing Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen during the season. If they want to be successful in the AFC, they will likely need to slow down Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, and Trevor Lawrence. So, having a strong secondary will be key to the Broncos having success this season.
Simmons is one of the few defensive players on the roster who played for Vance Joseph during his first stint with the team. So, he knows how to best use him, so it will be interesting to see how he does this season.
Kareem Jackson - Safety - 5-10, 183 pounds
Veteran safety Kareem Jackson re-signed with the Broncos on a one-year deal after the draft. The 35-year-old safety has played the last four seasons with the Broncos and now is looking to return for his fifth season with the team. This time, he will be joining Vance Joseph’s defense and adding depth to the Broncos’ safety position.
During his four seasons with the Broncos, Jackson has played in 61 games and totaled 342 tackles, 8 tackles for a loss, 1 sack, 4 interceptions, 19 pass deflections, and 1 forced fumble. This past season for the Broncos, he totaled 94 tackles, 2 tackles for a loss, and 3 pass deflections.
How big of a role will Kareem Jackson play this season??pic.twitter.com/1gG1PGzVIi— DNVR Broncos (@DNVR_Broncos) July 18, 2023
His exact role with the team and even his roster spot seem to be up in the air currently. He is a 35-year-old defensive back so father time is going to win that battle sooner rather than later. However, he has proven he can be an effective player despite his age. As for starting, I do not see Jackson winning that battle this summer. I believe Caden Sterns has elevated himself into that role and Jackson will move into a key reserve role. Jackson is a team leader, a feisty player and even if he does not start, he can be valuable to this team.
I believe a scenario exists where Jackson may not even make the team. He is an aging defensive back and if he has lost a step, he could become a liability for the team in coverage. He also has multiple young safeties on the roster who could surpass him or make him expendable. I do not think this scenario happens, but it is certainly possible.
Caden Sterns - Safety - 6-1, 207 pounds
The third-year safety appeared to be on the verge of a breakout season last year before an injury ended his season. Now he enters year three and I believe he will secure a starting job and have that breakout year for the Broncos.
This will be Sterns third coaching staff since being drafted by the Broncos but the reviews from the current staff have been pretty good so far. After an OTA practice earlier this offseason, head coach Sean Payton praised Sterns instincts and called the third-year safety smart.
“I think that he’s smart, and that’s a good trait to have at his position. He also has instincts. That was a heck of a play down the field and staying on top. For him staying healthy and then taking a little bit of this momentum—confidence is born really out of demonstrated ability. You can hope for confidence, or say, ‘I’m going to be confident,’ but it’s only born from demonstrated ability. Plays like that—you guys have all seen a preseason game where someone excels and then all of a sudden, you have a different player. You can point to a certain moment. He’s one of those type of players.”
It will be interesting to see if Sterns is running with the first or second-team defense during training camp. If he starts day one of camp, the job is likely his, but the Broncos coaching staff could make him earn it and have him compete with Kareem Jackson and others. I still think in the end, Sterns will earn a larger role with this team this season.
P.J. Locke - Safety - 5-10, 202 pounds
The Broncos failed to tender reserve safety P.J. Locke during free agency, but they did end up re-signing him down the road. Last season, Locke was a key special teamer for the Broncos and he led the special teams unit in tackles. With Sean Payton putting an emphasis on improving that unit this year, a player like Locke likely will stand out positively to him.
Locke did more than just contribute on special teams, he was also effective on defense. Against the 49ers, Locke forced the game-winning fumble and secure the win for the Broncos.
As for this season, I think Locke makes the team and has a similar role to the one he had last year. He will be a key special teams player who can contribute on defense if needed. How well he plays on defense could impact the roster spot of Kareem Jackson and others, but ultimately, I view him as the Broncos' fourth safety.
Delarrin Turner-Yell - Safety - 5-11, 200 pounds
The Broncos selected Delarrin Turner-Yell in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL Draft but now, he is likely on the roster bubble. He had a pretty uneventful rookie season and the Broncos re-signed a veteran and drafted another safety in this year's draft. So, Turner-Yell faces stiff competition for a roster spot and on top of that, has to impress a brand new coaching staff that did not draft him. So, he faces some tough challenges in these coming weeks if he wants to make the team.
Right now, I have Turner-Yell not making the team. There are five safeties ahead of him on the depth chart and it would be unlikely for the team to keep six of them. So, Turner-Yell will need to surpass someone on the roster. Unless Kareem Jackson does not make the team, I do not see that happening.
If he wants to make the 53-man roster, he will need to impress on special teams. That is his best shot at making the team and is a role he contributed to last season. So, we shall see how it goes in the coming weeks. If he doesn’t make the team, he seems like a lock to make the practice squad.
JL Skinner - Safety - 6-4, 220 pounds
In the sixth round of the 2023 NFL Draft, the Broncos selected Boise State safety JL Skinner. He is a massive safety, who can hit and has good movement skills and coverage ability. He was projected to be a day two or early day three prospect, but a torn pectoral he suffered while training for the Combine hurt his draft stock. So, the Broncos potentially got themselves a steal in the sixth round.
Recent reports are indicating that Skinner is on track to be cleared for the start of training camp and could avoid the PUP. If so, that would be huge for the Broncos and Skinner. He has missed all of the offseason which has set him back, but getting back in time for camp allows him to show the coaches what he can do.
I have him locked into a roster spot because I doubt a 6’4”, 220-pound safety with his skill set will go unclaimed in waivers. Also, I have him making the roster on pure talent alone. Clearly, the Broncos have a plan for him, and he could be a versatile player for them this season and down the road.
Devon Key - Safety - 6-0, 208 pounds
Safety Devon Key was an undrafted free agent in the 2021 NFL Draft and signed with the Kansas City Chiefs at the conclusion of the draft. He spent his rookie year on the practice squad and re-signed with the team on a reserve/future contract at the beginning of 2022. He was waived by the Chiefs last year at the cut-down date but did not sign with another team until November when he signed on the Atlanta Falcons practice squad. A week later, the Falcons released him from their practice squad and he remained unsigned until a month later when he signed on to the Broncos practice squad. He re-signed with the Broncos as a reserve/future player and now is fighting for a roster spot.
It is unlikely that he makes the 53-man roster and will need to play better than he has in the past to make the practice squad. He seems like camp depth right now, but we shall see if he will prove to be more than that in the coming weeks.